Islamophobia – it’s real

Safya Khan-Ruf - 10 10 18

More people in Britain believe that Islam is incompatible with the British way of life than those who think it is compatible, and more people believe that there are ‘no go zones’ in Britain, where sharia law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter, than not.

The results of an exclusive YouGov poll of over 10,000 people commissioned by HOPE not hate in July 2018 are staggering – but also a natural consequence of rising Islamophobia in the UK and abroad.

Apparent in both the dog-whistle politics of mainstream politicians and the sharp increase in violent attacks against Muslims in Britain following the EU referendum, there is a visible hardening of attitudes towards Muslims in the West. Our survey also revealed that 28% of Britons believe Islamist terrorists reflect a widespread hostility to Britain among the wider Muslim community.

The battle against Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry and prejudice is complicated by the refusal of some to even admit the existence of Islamophobia, or the terminology that can be used to describe it.

Objections such as “it’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamo-realism”, “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam”, “Muslims are not a race so it’s not racism” and “we should be able to criticise religions” are constant refrains, often used to excuse intolerance, bigotry and hate towards followers of Islam or to divert the conversation away from the issue onto a debate about the validity of the word “Islamophobia” itself.

Islamophobia is real. Quibbling over the term distracts from the issue. Countering Islamophobia is not about curtailing free speech or limiting criticism of the faith either. It is about ensuring a minority community is not stigmatised, discriminated against, or suffering hate crimes.

Muslims are not the only ones who are targeted by this hate either. South Asian-looking citizens in the UK have sometimes been identified or targeted as ‘Muslims’, no matter the supposed distinction between race and religion. This has led to dangerous overlaps such as recurring stories of Sikh men getting their turbans ripped off while being hurled with Islamophobic abuse.

Despite European Muslims condemning cultural phenomena such as so-called “honour killings” and forced marriage as cultural practices in need of eradicating, they are nevertheless seen as imported Muslim behaviours, as “backward Islamic culture”, posing a threat to British values.

Craig Considine, a lecturer in sociology at Rice University in Texas, argues in his study that it is simplistic to overlook the role that race plays in Islamophobic hate crimes.

“While Muslims are not a “race,” they are examined through a racial process that is demarcated by physical features and racial underpinnings,” he writes.

The word “Islamophobia” has also been mired in controversy with some believing it to be a term coined by the Iranian government, to suppress criticism of the Islamic religion. Others claim it was invented and promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood through something called the International Institute for Islamic Thought.

But according to two sociologists, Marwan Mohammed and Abdellali Hajjat, the term was used in 1910 by French anthropologists to describe a way to administer colonised land in East Africa and then reappeared in the UK in the 1980s.

While it has a contested etymology, the term gained popular usage following the landmark 1997 report Islamophobia: a challenge for us all by the Runnymede Trust.

In 2005, the Council of Europe offered the following definition:

“[Islamophobia is the] fear of or prejudiced viewpoint towards Islam, Muslims and matters pertaining to them. Whether it takes the shape of daily forms of racism and discrimination or more violent forms, Islamophobia is a violation of human rights”.

There remains no consensual definition for Islamophobia, although organisations combatting anti-Muslim hatred across Europe are working to create one, and the British government is likely to adopt a definition in the coming months. Until then, LAMP will be using the Council of Europe’s definition.

Modern Islamophobia suffered a marked change following the terrorist attacks on the USA on

September 11, 2001. Since then, the wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the further terrorist attacks, the rise of ISIS and the migrant crisis have all helped drive anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia.

Reports from international and civil society organisations have pointed to an increase in insecurity among Muslims in Europe, as well as forms of discrimination directed against individuals and communities.

A record number of anti-Muslim attacks and incidents of abuse were reported last year in the UK, with women disproportionately targeted. The Home Office has stated it believes the rise in hate crimes are both due to a genuine increase following the EU referendum as well as ongoing improvement in crime recording by the police.

Negative perceptions of Muslims are also likely affected by the reams of negative and prejudiced portrayals of Muslims by parts of the mainstream press, in ‘fake news’ (often shared on social media), and by right-wing and populist politicians.

Following Boris Johnson’s now infamous ‘letterbox’ comments in August, there was a temporary increase in reported incidents to Tell MAMA (an organisation that monitors anti-Muslim hate), including examples where Muslim women were called “letterboxes”, irrespective of their clothing.

One of the most successful politicians in shifting the Overton window (the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse) towards the far right is the current president of the United States.

When Donald Trump announced “Islam hates us” and retweeted anti-Muslim content from far-right group Britain First, he was propagating the worst stereotypes, of Muslims being violent heathens bent on destroying Western culture and civilisation. His presidency has also emboldened nationalist and far-right figures who believe in an inevitable clash of civilisation, a war between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslims.

But combatting anti-Muslim hate and prejudice will not only be a battle against far-right groups or bigots. Real anxieties have been deliberately exploited and fed by unscrupulous politicians and media to the point that it can be almost impossible to have a decent discussion on the topic without being shouted down or even threatened.

The physical isolation of some of Britain’s coastal and post-industrial communities plays a role. Places which are geographically isolated or have poor transport links may become less outward looking, with their residents less exposed to people from different backgrounds.

Having open, balanced conversations with people about their concerns regarding Muslims or related topics such as immigration or extremism allows constructive debate, and avoids anxieties being driven underground, or online, where their fears can be amplified or exploited by those seeking to divide.

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